Old Favorites

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!Imagine saying the Pledge of Allegiance to a bright yellow flag featuring a coiled rattlesnake! The history of the flag of the United States is a compelling story, but historians are divided as to the facts. Did Betsy Ross really create the first flag? This play, which was originally published in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America and later reprinted in the January 2002 issue of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, encourages readers to become history sleuths. It includes the play script, a short reading supplement, a bubble quiz, a comprehension activity built around William Canby’s 1870 treatise on the matter, answer keys, and extension activities.

Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction? is the first of several old but new plays destined for TeachersPayTeachers this season. Having recently re-acquired full publishing rights to the plays in my book, Symbols of America, I’ll be packaging up all these old favorites for easy downloading on TpT.

As with all my plays, the Symbols collection is suitable for reader’s theater or full stage production. You can use the plays to build fluency and to satisfy a variety of Common Core standards in Literature and Informational Text. Best of all, the original purchaser is licensed to print one class set per year for use in his or her own classroom.

To preview or purchase Betsy Ross, click here. Be sure to check back often for “old but new plays” about MLK, Mount Rushmore, the War of 1812, World War Two, and more.

Happy directing!

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How to Counteract the Terrible Test

Read Aloud Play: A Retrieved ReformationI can gripe with the best of ‘em, and every year the teaching profession seems to provide plenty of new stuff to gripe about. My biggest gripe this year isn’t about class size (though I’ve had an exhausting 36 fourth graders), but instead, it’s about all the new bureaucracy associated with Common Core and the Smarter Balanced test. It seems to me our politicians and administrators have painted us into an academic corner. They’ve made teaching so complicated that it’s venturing toward the impossible

In my school, we’re currently mid-stream on the Smarter Balanced test. We’re finding the “performance task” to be a farce akin to safe-cracking and the test itself to be unnecessarily tricky and technologically unwieldy. It’s no wonder people all across the country are “opting-out”—156,000 in New York alone. The test is so bad and so unpopular that many of us are wondering if we’ll soon see the proverbial pendulum forced in the opposite direction. Let’s hope so. If you ask me, all this emphasis on testing is sucking the joy out of the classroom.

HBO’s “Tonight with John Oliver,” which you can find on YouTube, has a rant about standardized testing worth seeing (though it includes mature language). Oliver points out that the typical American public school student must complete as many as 130+ standardized tests during his or her school career. He also points out that since NCLB was enacted, our academic performance compared to the rest of the globe has actually decreased. So much for standardized testing saving the school system. Instead, the big winners in the testing game appear to be the test publishers. Corporate America. Go figure.

The experts say the point of all these tests is so that we can identify which of our students need extra help. Really? My hand is up! Pick me, please! I can already tell you which of my students need extra help. I can already tell you which of my students are unlikely to graduate. I can already tell you which of my students are likely to have a rough go of it in the real world. I don’t need a standardized test to figure it out. I can also tell you that testing these kids isn’t going to solve their problems.

I’m feeling sorry for my students right now. That they have to trudge down to our computer lab four times a week to endure this punishment is a travesty. I think they should love coming to school, so I’m trying to counteract the test by concluding the year with another bank of Read Aloud Plays. This week we’re splitting into three groups, assigning parts, and reading and re-reading our plays around a table and at home. Next week we’ll go outside into our courtyard and choreograph our on-stage movements, and a week or two later we’ll invite a couple of other classes to come watch. It’s simple, it’s academically valid, and it’s fun for kids–a nice contrast to the torture and unnecessary complexity of standardized testing.

Some enjoyable plays with which to end the year include Cyclops (that famed one-eyed monster!), O’ Henry’s A Retrieved Reformation (about safe-cracking ex-con Jimmy Valentine) and Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone (a spoof of A Tell-Tale Heart). If you have my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories, try “The Nose”, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” and “The Open Window.” Really, though, any of my Read Aloud Plays will do. This time of year it shouldn’t matter which CCSS or content strand they fit (although they fit many). This time of year, with that doggone standardized test soon behind us, it should just be for fun. For the love of reading. For the love of school.

Do something this month to make your kids love school. Try a set of Read Aloud Plays.

Let me help you get started: click here for a free download of “A Retrieved Reformation” (expired) and here for an always free copy of “Why Use Drama,” my popular guide to using reader’s theater in the classroom. If you like these products, please visit my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers and take a gander at my wide variety of classroom plays.

Happy directing!

Are You the Mad Scientist?

Mad-sciJust as all television families seem to live in mini mansions, whenever TV-world students put on plays, the sets are extravagant and the costuming looks as if a team of seamstresses have worked ‘round the clock for months on end. Think Spanish Man-o-Wars in full regalia, or Elizabethan jodhpurs, not cardboard swords and Dollar Store wigs. It’s as if the teacher has but 15 students and no other task at hand but to produce that play! Those of us who’ve directed class plays in the real world, however, know that’s not typically how it works. When staging a Read Aloud Play, you needn’t try to emulate what you see on TV. A few carefully-selected props and a bit of personalization is all that’s needed to turn a simple reading activity into a smash hit.

A teacher using my Read Aloud Play, “A Retrieved Reformation,” recently left this comment: “We added a train as a prop to get the actors on and off stage and from one scene to another. We also localized the locations by using the name of our city and nearby towns.”

What fantastic modifications! And simple, too.

In my classroom, whenever we enact “Fly Me to the Moon,” we put the student playing Walter Cronkite into a cardboard 1960’s television set. In “How Jackie Robinson Saved the World,” the peanut vending narrators actually toss bags of peanuts to audience members (who are themselves cast members). When we perform “Box Brown’s Freedom Crate,” we put Henry inside a cardboard box painted to look like a wooden crate (and when the curtains close on that scene, we replace him with a dummy so that the audience thinks he’s still in there when the crate is being roughly tossed from wagon to train to ship).

Read Aloud Plays are designed to build reading fluency and comprehension skills. The repetitive process of practicing for a performance or class reading simulates the process kids go through when they’re first learning to read from favorite picture books. This alone justifies making them part of your reading curriculum. But including props and personalizing the plays makes them that much more enjoyable and effective. For fictional stories like “A Piece of String” and “The Birth-mark,” consider letting your students change the names of characters and places. (Maybe they’ll name the mad scientist in Birth-mark after you!) Whether fiction or non-fiction, consider creating a few key props. Perhaps baskets of “cotton” would make sense for “Freedom for the First Time,” or if you’re performing “Cyclops,” consider creating a giant-sized (and especially hideous) mask for the student playing the monster to wear.

You can give your students creative license as well. In my last set of plays I asked students to research their characters and come up with one costuming element that represented who they were. A student playing Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, rolled in on a wheel chair (borrowed from the health room), and a little gal playing Abe Lincoln showed up with a top hat.

What key props or creative modifications have you tried with my Read Aloud Plays? My readers and I would like to hear from you. You can leave a comment about your props and mods on my TpT storefront, or email me directly at lewis@jeffnet.org (I do not retain or compile email addresses).

Happy directing!

Two New Plays (and Free Comprehension Stuff, Too!)

Click here to preview or purchase at TpT!I guess you can qualify me as a “Vitamin D Addict.” This time of year, the sun is typically obscured by the greyness of the southern Oregon winter, so whenever it’s out and abundant, I make it a habit to soak in as much as I can. I just can’t bring myself to come inside and work until it disappears behind my neighbor’s chimney. I haven’t been entirely unproductive, however. My Read Aloud Play, A Piece of String, has finally been uploaded to TeachersPayTeachers, and my new play about the New York City newsboys strike of 1899 appears this month in Scholastic’s Scope magazine.

“Newsies” follows a Polish immigrant named Aniela as she embarks on a brief career as a newsboy. Following the Spanish-American War, thousands of children like Ani went on strike to protest the way papers such as William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s Evening World passed their expenses down to the lowly newsboy. It’s a compelling story about kids and child labor similar in theme to my play about Lewis Hine (“Stolen Childhoods”). “Newsies” is exclusively available from my friends at Scope. You can check it out here.

Meanwhile, my adaption of Guy De Maupassant’s classic short story, “A Piece of String,” tells about a habitual liar who gets hoisted on his own petard. When he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, his long history of lies make it impossible for him to prove his innocence. The play originally appeared in Scope’s Dec. 2013 edition. As with all my Scope and Storyworks plays, I’ve waited about a year to re-package it for TpT. Part of the reason this one took longer than usual—other than the sun’s pleasant cameo— is that I packaged it with a trio of free Common Core comprehension activities. You can download the free comprehension pack or the whole package. Middle school and early high school teacher s will find this play package to be a great way to introduce students to classic literature. Pair it with the original story to enhance engagement and comprehension. The lessons about good habits and a positive reputation will also play well with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. Plus, your kids will enjoy using terms like “clodhopper” and “coot.”

Finally, Spring is a great time to engage students with The Checkbook Project. It’s math, it’s personal finance, it’s a behavior management program, and it’s entirely free. My own students started last week and are totally engrossed by it. Check it out by clicking on The Checkbook Project tab!

Happy directing!

Celebrate Your Slow Readers

Free Black History Play (through Jan 31)I recently read an article about how “slow reading” is gaining acceptance as an academic approach. Though the piece was aimed at high school and college instructors, the gist remains the same at the elementary and middle school levels: let’s slow our kids down and have them read meaningfully. To this I say, “hot dang!” I’ve long been an advocate of focusing on accuracy and beauty rather than speed.

The purveyors of Oral Reading Fluency measures no doubt developed their program with good intentions. They saw a correlation between quality reading and speed. They found that good readers, when tested by the minute, can read fast. Consequently, oral reading fluency has become the king of qualifiers for Special Ed and Title I services. The flaw is that the formula isn’t commutative (if I may borrow a math concept for a moment): good readers may be able to read fast, but it doesn’t work in the opposite direction. Emphasizing ORF scores teaches kids to read fast, but that doesn’t mean they’ll read well. In fact, all this emphasis on speed is probably causing kids to struggle more than ever.

The emphasis in my classroom is on reading with accuracy, personality, and comprehension. Obviously, I believe plays are the perfect vehicle for doing just that, though the process of re-training kids who have been under the ORF thumb for so long isn’t without its tribulations. My students just recorded their first set of radio dramas. When it came time to record, there was a lot of mumbling, stumbling, and stammering from some, while others read their parts like people actually talk. And, get this, there was no correlation between such quality reading and their ORF scores! In fact, some of my lowest “per minute” readers read the most beautifully; some of my highest, rather poorly. You guessed it: the factor of greatest influence was whether or not a given student read independently at home during the two weeks leading up to the recording session.

This month you can encourage great reading by staging a trio of plays for Black History Month in February. Plays such as Freedom for the First Time and Box Brown’s Freedom Crate teach about slavery while giving kids the chance to practice their slow southern drawls. Plays such as Sitting Down for Dr. King and The Girl Who Got Arrested re-enact inspiring moments from the Civil Rights Movement. There are several other Black History titles available (including this one–a free gift to my readers during January!), but whether you use my plays or not, consider jumping on the “slow reading” band wagon and let February be about teaching your students to read beautifully.

Happy directing!

MLK Day Inspiration

Click on the cover to preview at TpT!I’ve been fortunate to have forged a lasting relationship with Scholastic publishers, particularly the wonderful editors at Storyworks and Scope magazines. Through my work with them I’ve developed a reputation for writing compelling reader’s theater about Martin Luther King and African-American history in general. Somehow, I’ve been able to accurately represent the historical events and, more importantly, convey the spirit of Dr. King’s work through such plays as “Sitting Down for Dr. King.” With MLK Day upon us, and given that February is Black History Month, I want to encourage you to give some of my reader’s theater scripts a try.

I’m particularly proud of “Sitting Down.” I remember struggling over it when I was writing it back in 2002.There I was, bouncing one bad idea after another off my laptop screen, regretting having accepted the contract at all, when I realized how very simple my task was in comparison to the mammoth challenge undertaken by Dr. King. Soon thereafter I crafted the fictional story of “David,” a twelve-year-old white kid frustrated that these African-American college students were getting in the way of his birthday shortcake at the Woolworths. “Sitting Down” has since appeared in three different Scholastic venues including Storyworks, a text book series, and a leveled reading set, but I’m proud of it because it has a powerful ending that I believe Dr. King would have respected.

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!I think my play, “Gonna Let it Shine” also conveys the spirit of Dr. King’s work. It’s based upon the true story of Sheyann Webb, who was just eight years old when she braved tear gas and posse men while marching alongside Dr. King. She became known as “Dr. King’s Youngest Freedom Fighter,” and her story is the subject of the Disney movie, “Selma, Lord, Selma.” The play originally appeared in Storyworks under the title “Pigtails & Protests.” In the process of re-writing it for release on TeachersPayTeachers, I had the privilege to talk with Sheyann herself, who is today–some fifty years later–a public speaker and Civil Rights advocate. It was surreal to speak with someone who in my writing was still just a child. It was inspiring to connect with someone who not only knew Dr. King and numerous other heroes of the Movement, but was in fact a Civil Rights hero in her own right.

We Shall Overcome” tells the story of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. That’s the event where students, some nearly young as Sheyann, were attacked by police dogs and knocked to the ground by blasts from fire hoses. News coverage of their sacrifice swayed worldwide public opinion in favor of desegregation.

The Girl Who Got Arrested,” meanwhile, tells the true story of Claudette Colvin, the first person to be hauled off a city bus and tried in court for defying Montgomery’s segregated busing law. Her story is depicted in the book, “Twice Toward Justice.” I certainly don’t want to diminish the work of Rosa Parks, but in my humble opinion, Claudette’s story is far more compelling.

One of my “under sung” plays is “MLK’s Freedom March.” It’s a work of historical fiction about a girl named Lucy who helps her ailing grandmother get to Washington to hear MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There’s also “In the Jailhouse with Dr. King,” about a troubled teenage who turns it around when he witnesses King’s calm demeanor in the face of violence during the Bus Boycott. These and other plays capture the essence of MLK’s work. Consider celebrating MLK Day and/or Black History Month in your classroom by picking any three, dividing your class into three groups, practicing for a couple weeks, and then presenting them with opportunity for discussion in between. In so doing, you’ll be giving your students a strong foundation in MLK history, and perhaps the inspiration to make history themselves.

Happy Directing!

Thanks!

SCOPE-110113-PlayAs we wrap up 2014, I just want to thank you for making this the best year yet for Read Aloud Plays. In the coming year, watch for a variety of new plays to become available including A Piece of String, which was originally published in the Nov. 2013 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine, and I Have a Dream, the story of Martin Luther King’s childhood, which originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of Storyworks. I also plan to revamp the formatting on nearly all my plays, making sure that each comes with a comprehension activity designed to help your students meet the Common Core. No need to wait to purchase them, however. One of the great features on TeachersPayTeachers is that buyers can download updated versions without additional charge. Each time I update a play, I’ll let you know that a new version is available. Here’s to a great 2015 full of fluency-building reader’s theater for the classroom!

Happy directing!

Too Late to Stage The Best Holiday Pageant Ever?

Gabriel Grub holiday playI was recently contacted by a theater company in Maryland which wants to add my adaption of “The Gift of the Magi” to its annual Victorian Christmas Collection. They wanted to know how much I charge for performance rights. Normally, when you perform a play from publishing companies, you’re required to pay a substantial licensing fee. The Samuel French Company, for example, owns the rights to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. If you want your students to perform it for the annual PTO bazaar, it’ll set you back $100 or 10% of the gate receipts, whichever is greater—and that’s often in addition to buying the scripts themselves (which run $8 or $9 each).

I craft my plays so that teachers can use them to build strong readers, self-confident speakers, and engaged learners. I don’t charge schools to perform my plays. Your three bucks gives you license to photocopy as many scripts as you need for your class AND the rights to perform the play in your school. Three bucks sounds like a pretty good deal compared to traditional publishers.

I’m pleased the Gift of the Magi is getting some love in Maryland, but I’m even happier that my holiday plays are finding their way into classrooms all over the country. It isn’t too late to work in a reading or even a quick performance of one of my Halloween plays into yours. The Birth-mark, which is based on the short story masterpiece by Hawthorne, is a good place to start. Says one purchaser of The Birth-mark:

“My students love Reader’s Theater. They loved reading this. They said that they were able to express the ‘darker side of themselves.’”

Also consider The Monkey’s Paw, the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and the Tell-Tale Heart. The Monkey’s Paw originally appeared in Scholastic’s Scope magazine, while the latter two are available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (Scholastic). You can purchase it as an e-book and have it ready for your students right away.

If you enjoy Poe, consider pairing the original story of Tell-Tale Heart with my modernized version: Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone. It retells the story in a unique way. Says one user:

“My 8th grade students LOVED this assignment. I let them use their cell phones and make the ring tone noises while reading. It kept them engaged and we read it three different times during the class so they could read different parts. Highly recommend.”

Finally, I have a handful of engaging Christmas plays, too. Gabriel Grub–from Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers—is my newest script, and it’s as eerie as any Halloween tale. I also have two versions of A Christmas Carol. For a limited time, you can download my traditional version from TpT–or you can re-imagine Scrooge as a woman by using my Classic Short Stories version (which also includes Magi, by the way). No, it isn’t too late to stage the Best Holiday Pageant Ever.

Happy Directing!

Why this Play is Important

Click on the cover to preview or purchaseStudents will quickly connect with eight-year old Sheyann Webb. When African-Americans were being denied the right to vote, she became Martin Luther King’s “Smallest Freedom Fighter” by joining marches on the local courthouse. As the events in 1965 Selma, Alabama, escalated, Sheyann began sneaking out of the house to attend meetings at Brown Chapel. She was there, too, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge when Selma exploded with tear gas and Billy clubs. The event became known as Bloody Sunday, and it directly led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But what makes this story compelling is the perspective. We’re used to hearing about the Civil Rights struggle from the viewpoint of adults, yet here is the true story of a little girl who not only saw it, but was there on the front lines risking the same dangers as her adult counterparts. What better way to engage your students in the Civil Rights Movement!

My new play, “Gonna Let it Shine,” shares Sheyann Webb’s emotional, often frightening childhood experience. Carefully researched, it improves upon an earlier version that appeared in Storyworks in 2012. It’s important to your students because it’s a kid’s story. Your students will relate to Sheyann. They’ll admire her courage. They’ll wander if they’d have been as strong. And they’ll root for her, regardless of their own race. Most of all, they’ll be inspired by her. Sheyann will show your students that one doesn’t have to be a grown-up to have a grown-up influence on the world.

Gonna Let it Shine is available on my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers for preview or purchase. As with all my plays, the original purchaser is licensed to reproduce one class set per year for use in his or her own classroom.

Along with the play, I also created a free vocab and comprehension activity that aligns the play to specific Common Core standards. Be sure to share with your students the Disney movie, Selma, Lord, Selma. It depicts Sheyann’s story with typical Disney flare. There’s also an accurate and intriguing YouTube video detailing Sheyann’s contribution to Civil Rights that can be found here. Consider comparing and contrasting all three.

Finally, the Sheyann Webb of today has remained an advocate for children and civil rights. Find out more about her work by visiting the Sheyann Webb Group.

Happy Directing!

Grow Some Neurons!

Many kids begin school already knowing how to read. They haven’t had formal lessons. Their parents haven’t been trained in the latest methodology. They haven’t used a single worksheet or text book. Yet here they are reading. Why?

What Does Brain Research Show About Fluency?

Consider for a moment how your own children learned to read. If they’re like many kids, they had a few favorites in their book bin. I recall my oldest boy latching on to Amos & Boris and a Sesame Street book entitled Don’t Forget the Oatmeal. As a preschooler, he would ask us to read these books over and over again. Soon, he started reading them to us. “He’s not really reading,” we’d tell ourselves, “He’s heard the book so many times, he’s just memorized the words.”

But based on brain research dating back to the days of psychologist Lev Vygtsky (left), some experts believe the difference between reading and memorization is slight. Kids get an emotional charge out of reading proficiently—whether memorized or not. The positive charge actually produces chemicals that form the neural pathways that make reading (and learning) possible. Because our son had consumed Don’t Forget the Oatmeal so frequently, he’d mastered the text, prompting his brain to construct new pathways.

Can Reading Physically Damage a Child’s Brain?

No, reading won’t damage a child’s brain, but could poor instruction? Consider what we often do in the classroom. We take a book, article, or story and ask kids to read it one time. We expect mastery on the first attempt. We ask kids to pass computerized tests, complete worksheets, and discuss content after just a single reading. We’ve assumed that language is language, that if they can decode they should be able to read anything at their grade level. It’s a fallacy and a tragedy. If Vgotsky was right, instead of experiencing a positive emotion that builds pathways, many kids in this situation suffer a negative emotion that causes them to withdraw and resist reading altogether, possibly even causing those neural pathways to shrink. And don’t assume it’s just your low-performing students either. Watch carefully when you ask students to read aloud in class; many of your brightest kids are just as reluctant as your poor readers. It’s not simply that they’re shy; they don’t want to risk experiencing the negative emotions they feel when they stumble over or mispronounce a word. There are, however, a number of ways teachers can prevent those neurons from shrinking, one being the use of “repetitive reading” techniques.

How is Repetition Beneficial?

Asking a young reader to read aloud a piece of text he or she is looking at for the very first time is akin to asking a musician to perform in public a piece of music he or she has never played before. Only the most talented can do it, and even they rarely do. Just as music is a language that requires repetition for mastery, so too does reading. Your students need opportunities to “sight read,” to practice, and then to “perform” the material you want them to master. Plays are the perfect format.

Because we’ve inadvertently trained kids that a book is something to be read only once, few third graders are willing to give James and the Giant Peach a second round. Few second graders will read Stellaluna more than once or twice. Give children a script and schedule a public performance, however, and they’ll be willing to read and reread it twenty to thirty times. Twenty to thirty times! By the time they’re asked to read it in front of the class, even your struggling readers will be able to read with reasonable fluency. Even your “shy” kids will be willing to read out loud.

Read Aloud Plays give you the opportunity to teach repetitive reading without the resistance you get when asking a child to re-read a traditional text. Students acquire mastery, which chemically changes the brain, making them superior readers who are better able to comprehend. If Mr. Vgotsky were alive today, I think he’d approve.

Are You Ready to Grow Those Pathways?

If you’re not already using read aloud plays in your instruction, this is a great time to start. Not only will all that repetitive reading help grow some neurons, but drama can be used to fulfill a significant number of Common Core State Standards. Kick off the school year with a trio of explorer plays such as Fly Me to the Moon, The Fountain of Youth, and Lewis & Clark and Bird Girl. Or consider a set of American Revolution plays such The Secret Soldier, A Bell for the Statehouse, and Fact or Fiction: The Legend of Betsy Ross. Or browse ReadAloudPlays.com to mix and match.

Happy Directing!